Analogies will be drawn in the coming weeks between the recent popular uprisings, most notably in Egypt, and the events beginning in 1989 and continuing into the early 1990s that brought democracy to much of the former Eastern bloc. In what is known as the third wave of democratisation (the first being in the early 1800s and the second being after the second world war), the Solidarity movement in Poland informed the peaceful transitions in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the transition to democracy in Hungary and the reunification of Germany.
It is no stretch to say that the political leadership and leaders of the opposition movements learned from one another throughout the tumult of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Much as social media today has been touted as a spur to democratic movements in the Middle East, pirate radio bombarded the Eastern bloc with information about democratic successes in other countries, as well as the ominous alternative posed byTiananmen Square. But while the wave following the fall of the Berlin Wall created a period of unprecedented security across the European continent, the current wave of uprisings could create a corridor of failed states stretching from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the frontiers of Europe in southern Turkey.
The “fourth wave” narrative goes something like this: just as a host of communist dictators – Jaruzelski in Poland, Honecker in Germany and Németh in Hungary – were swept away by the third wave, the fall of Bakiev in Kyrgyzstan and Ben Ali in Tunisiaand the uncertain perches of Mubarak in Egypt and Saleh in Yemen signal a new wave of democratisation. The continuing crisis in Egypt, Saleh’s announcement that he will not seek re-election, the reshuffling of the Jordanian cabinet and whispers of protest in Syria contain the promise of a “1989 moment” throughout the greater Middle East.
But important differences between recent events and the third wave are already apparent. In the third wave, Romania was the only country that experienced a violent transition to democracy. Things look different this time around, in great part because today’s nondemocratic leaders took their own lessons from the third wave. Instead of tanks and troops, and top-down repression a la Tiananmen Square the new oppressors of democratisation are the Basij, the “pro-government protesters,” the plainclothes security personnel, the agents provocateurs inciting violence and instability.
As the iron curtain began to fall in Europe, leaders such as Honecker and Jaruzelski weighed the costs of violent repression on the stability of their regimes, essentially deciding between increased authoritarianism and liberalisation. If there truly is a “new wave”, it is characterised by a group of regimes that have learned to pass the decision between power and stability on to the protestors by creating environments of insecurity and fostering the conditions for state failure through tactics such as throwing open the prison doors and sponsoring thugs engaged in street violence. The opposition movements are left to decide whether to continue to press for their ideal outcome while the apparatus of governance teeters closer to collapse, or to negotiate with the regime while facing the potential erosion of the movement’s credibility.
Further complicating this “new wave” is the role political Islam plays in western security circles. The transition of Soviet bloc states into the democratic fold was seen and understood as a victory against an ideological enemy: the vast USSR. The third wave delegitimated the Soviet style of governance as the massive bureaucratic state crumbled under increasing pressure for political liberalisation, both internally and externally. In the “new wave”, things are different. In the eyes of the west, the crowds are as likely to be its ideological enemies as are the regimes in power – autocracy in the presidential palace is balanced by the spectre of radical Islam in the streets. Whether these fears are well grounded remains to be seen, but western states look to the electoral successes of Hamas and Hezbollah as establishing a worrying precedent in the region.
And for all the democratising potential of social media, today’s improved analogue to Radio Free Europe, its powers are particularised and circumscribed. While it is true that social media have increased the capacity of the population to hold autocrats more accountable, they cannot solve pressing problems such as blocked social mobility and sky-high unemployment rates. Even if today’s movements manage to oust dictators and move toward free and fair elections, the frustrations and grievances of the populations supporting the movements will not necessarily be addressed. Such a development might lead to further disillusionment inside the protest movements – and this time with democracy.
The characteristics of this “new wave” matter for reasons that go beyond the potential satisfaction of seeing democracy flourish in new spots on the globe. Where in the past authoritarian leaders clamped down on their populations, snuffing democracy but maintaining security, there seems to be an emerging trend of authoritarian leaders letting their states collapse like poorly built houses of cards, with no guarantee of democracy or security.
While it is possible that the Egyptian uprising may result in a Turkish-style democratic state, a corridor of state failure from Kinshasa to Beirut is also not an unlikely outcome. That such stakes are now in play only underscores the necessity of re-examining the west’s historical role in supporting the type of personalistic dictatorships that are now under siege, and the familiar cultural arguments that these states have never been democratic – and lack the capacity ever to be become democratic.